China is looking for a leadership role in the global community. But its repressive behavior and lack of allies are creating problems.
Back in 1990, China’s strongman Deng Xiaoping formulated a foreign policy strategy that encouraged Chinese leaders to “hide our capacities and bide our time.” The country was to “keep a low profile” and never claim global leadership. The cautious approach was well in line with the difficulties facing the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) at the time, as the Berlin wall had just come down and China was under fierce criticism in the wake of the Tiananmen Square massacre.
But not even three decades later, the new Chinese strongman, Xi Jinping, seems confident that the time is coming. During a national security meeting in Beijing in February, Xi presented his so-called “two guidances,” declaring that China is now ready to “guide the international community” in the process to build a more just and reasonable world order. Xi also said that China should guide the international community in an effort to “maintain international security.”
Earlier, Xi had stopped at saying that China should “play an important role” in the shaping of a new world order. To “guide” constitutes a new term, and the difference between the choice of words has since been pointed out several times by Chinese state media and academics.
Ambitions old and new
But the new ambition level was hardly a bolt from the blue, especially given the recent drastic changes in world politics. Not only has the Chinese economy grown almost 40 times since 1990; the West is also wobbling after Donald Trump, Brexit and the recent success of populist movements on the European continent.
Confusion over this made the World Economic Forum in Davos in January look like a black comedy sketch of role reversal. After Trump’s election victory, Xi decided to be the first Chinese leader to attend the Davos forum in person, supporting globalization and free trade in a speech complete with trademark metaphors like: “Pursuing protectionism is just like locking oneself in a dark room. While wind and rain may be kept outside, so are light and air.”
Not only could Xi deliver his speech without any questions from the audience or the media. He was also supported by Klaus Schwab, director of the World Economic Forum. “In a world marked by great uncertainty and volatility, the international community is looking to China to continue its responsive and responsible leadership in providing all of us with confidence and stability,” said Schwab just before the CCP chairman’s speech.
Perhaps with the warm reception in Davos in mind, senior diplomat Zhang Jun a couple of days later told a press conference with foreign journalists that the Chinese do not seek global leadership, but that China will “assume its responsibilities” if required to play the leadership role after other countries step back from that position.
Of course, both Zhang and Xi were primarily referring to the U.S., whose relations with China have been marked by new levels of ambivalence since Trump assumed the presidency. Already during his election campaign, Trump used a fierce anti-Chinese rhetoric, promising to label the country a “currency manipulator” and threatening to impose a 45 percent tariff on Chinese imports. Trump soon also became the first American president since 1979 to have direct contact with his Taiwanese counterpart, and the first ever to question the “one China” policy.
But despite the confrontations, a few hands are most certainly being rubbed among the politicians behind the red walls of Zhongnanhai, the Chinese leadership complex. The fact that Trump is not known to have human rights or freedom of speech and of the press anywhere near the top of his agenda makes him less likely to press China on those points. Trump is also no fan of free trade and has already pulled out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a large trade deal years in the making, which the Chinese had been glancing at with jealousy since China was never meant to be included.
Instead, China has spent the last couple of years shaping its own equivalent of free-trade deals like the Free Trade Area of the Asia-Pacific (FTAAP) and Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), which can now be used to strengthen Chinese economic influence in the Asia-Pacific at the expense of the Americans. In November — just a week after Trump’s election victory — Xi was personally attending an APEC meeting in Lima to seek support for FTAAP and RCEP.
But China was already challenging the current global financial order. In 2014, the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), a would-be equivalent of the World Bank, was established in Beijing. The previous year, Xi was rolling out his personal prestige project, One Belt One Road, with outbound Chinese foreign investments totalling approximately US$100 billion.
Apart from security matters, China is likely to use a global leadership or “guidance” role to spread its values concerning human rights and the rule of law.
Hence, Trump and Brexit are not the deciding factors in China’s growing foreign policy ambitions. Already in October 2013, Xi had introduced fenfa youwei (“striving for achievement”) as a foreign policy strategy. A new anti-terrorist law soon followed which allowed the dispatch of Chinese military personal abroad without a mandate from the United Nations.
Last year China also set up a naval base in Djibouti; its first foreign military base since the withdrawal of Chinese troops from North Korea in 1958. A Chinese rear admiral also paid a visit to Syria last year, promising further military aid and training for government troops. Thus, China hass abandoned its longstanding agenda of non-interference in the “internal affairs” of other countries — in reality, if not yet on paper.
This, of course, became even more obvious in March, after the U.S. began installing a THAAD military defence system in South Korea. Chinese authorities stopped Chinese tourists from visiting South Korea, and state media called for a boycott of Korean products. Movie clips made rounds in social media of people smashing products from Samsung or LG, and of mobs rushing in to Lotte’s stores in China to destroy or eat goods straight off the shelves.
Apart from security matters, China is likely to use a global leadership or “guidance” role to spread its values concerning human rights and the rule of law. Indeed, Chinese trade or aid packages are known for their lack of clauses concerning transparency or environmental protection. Already today, China is working actively to control what is being said at foreign universities, which in combination with Chinese standards for Internet censorship and cybersecurity could be devastating for any opponent or critic of socialism with Chinese characteristics.
In a dark room
But to assume such a role within the international community, China needs alliances with countries that accept its political views and actions. And like the New York Times pointed out after Xi’s speech in Davos, the phrase “locking oneself in a dark room” could just as well have been used to describe China’s political development during his time as president, considering the magnitude of the current crackdown against activists and civil society.
Even in economic policy there is a great difference between what Xi says, and how China acts. Trade barriers have increased during the past couple of years. According to several chambers of commerce, foreign investors feel less welcome in China today than in a long time. And the CCP still holds a tight grip on several “key sectors” of the economy through large and heavily subsidized state owned enterprises, preventing investments from private businesses and foreign entrepreneurs.
Shortly after Xi presented the “two guidances,” Jean-Pierre Cabestan, head of the Political Science department at Baptist University of Hong Kong, pointed out that the world order that China wants to shape is “neo-Westphalian” by nature; centered around and controlled by the sovereign state rather than society and its individuals. Can this idea really be sold to a democratic populace?
Real alliances, as Beijing could soon realize, are not commodities that can be bought or traded. They are based on shared security interests and ideological values, and even more importantly, on mutual trust and respect.
An obvious backlash can be seen in the United Kingdom, where the government led by former prime minister David Cameron 2015 opted to be “China’s best partner” in the West by creating a “golden decade” between the two countries. This was meet by hefty resistance even within Cameron’s own Conservative Party, whose human rights commission the following year presented a report titled The Darkest Moment: The Crackdown on Human Rights in China 2013-2016, recommending the government to “rethink” its stance on China.
Likewise, Chinese aggression in the South China Sea is scaring away potential allies such as Vietnam and Indonesia. China’s refusal last summer to accept a decision by the Hague’s Permanent Court of Arbitration on its territorial ambitions in the South China Sea — which practically no other country in the world accepts — gave a hint of Beijing’s belief that it stands above international law. And that is not a particularly good attribute for someone who wants to take part in shaping it.
China may have friendly relations with some Asian countries that lack a coastline; for example, Cambodia and Laos often have supported China’s stance when casting votes in ASEAN. Also, some South American and African states recently switched their diplomatic allegiance from Taipei to Beijing. But this is largely a result of large Chinese “aid packages” or other kinds of carrots-and-sticks treatment. Real alliances, as Beijing could soon realize, are not commodities that can be bought or traded. They are based on shared security interests and ideological values, and even more importantly, on mutual trust and respect.
Therefore, it was particularly telling when Yan Xuetong, director of the Institute of International Relations at Tsinghua University in Beijing, last year concluded that China only has one real ally, namely India’s archenemy, Pakistan. And that is an alliance based on Chinese help with developing Pakistani nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles.
So despite its ambitions and the countless billions of dollars spent on everything from military aid to soft power, due to its repressive behavior at home and abroad China continues to be what many have called “the loneliest superpower” ever. That is also a sign that the international community, despite Trump and Brexit, still views the democratic world as a more trustworthy and responsible ally than Xi’s China.